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Yael Naim interview

by: Ben Harris - Last updated: 2008-03-22

Yael Naim

Yael Naim

There was a time not so long ago when musicians would be regarded as colossal sell-outs for licensing their work for use in a TV commercial.

But in following a trail blazed by such titans as the Rolling Stones and U2, French-Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim has little reason to be ashamed that she is best known for a maddeningly catchy tune featured in the current MacBook Air laptop ad.

If you've watched even a moderate amount of television lately, you've probably heard the song, "New Soul." It opens with a jangly piano line as a disembodied hand pulls a sliver of laptop from a manila envelope.

That 30-second clip has been watched by more than 1 million viewers on YouTube, and another 4.6 million people have watched the longer, full-length video of the song in which Naim's apartment decorating session morphs into a sort of impromptu dance party on a river raft.

The song currently is the eighth most popular download on the digital music service iTunes, and last month Naim became the first Israeli to crack the Billboard Top Ten, ranking ninth in the United States for sales of "New Soul" in the second week in February.

Naim says she turned down other offers to license the song before Apple came calling. Besides the priceless exposure afforded an artist whose last album was a commercial disappointment, Naim says there's something natural about her music being featured in an ad for a laptop.

"We really make a lot of music with computers," Naim told JTA. "We made this album on a computer. So it's part of the music process."

Of course, Naim is not the Rolling Stones. Prior to the Mac ad, she was a relatively unknown songwriter still licking her wounds after a disappointing 2001 debut album flopped.

Now she's seemingly everywhere.

In the last month alone, she has been featured in USA Today, Time Out New York and the New York Daily News, and she has performed on the Conan O'Brien Show, the CBS Early Show and at the major music industry festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

On Wednesday night, she wrapped up her first US tour, a short jaunt through three cities that finished at the sold-out Bowery Ballroom in New York City. When she performed "New Soul" -- which she did twice in the course of a barely hour-long set -- the audience at the Bowery burst to life, a spontaneous chorus belting out its addictive melody.

"It's nice," Naim told JTA the morning after.

Naim was born in Paris to Tunisian immigrants in 1978 and moved to Israel when she was 4. Not particularly religious, the family celebrated holidays and had big dinners on Friday nights. But her family was always interested in the arts - it was her father's Beatles records that diverted her interest from classical music - and Naim served in the Israeli army for two years as a singer.

"I had a really great childhood because it was a country with summer most of the year and children are really independent in Israel," Naim said. "Growing up like this in this kind of freedom made me really curious about the world and about other cultures and just being a human being first."

Her new album, "Yael Naim," was released in the United States on Tuesday. Recorded in her Paris apartment with musical partner David Donatien, it took more than two years to complete. It was Donatien, a percussionist from the West Indies, who encouraged Naim to sing in Hebrew, something she had resisted because she didn't think anyone was interested.

"When I heard this song, I thought that it was really true and really personal," Donatien said of Naim's Hebrew music. "It gave her a great identity."

Naim calls her decision to sing in Hebrew a "huge release."

On the album, a collection of ballads that could be the perfect soundtrack for an afternoon stroll by the Seine, Naim sings in a mixture of Hebrew and charmingly accented English, with just smattering of French. The one dissonant note is the strange inclusion of a mellowed-out cover of the Britney Spears hit "Toxic."

In concert, though, Naim is buoyant and playful and the music has a slightly coarser edge. Flitting around the stage with an almost girlish glee, Naim was clad Wednesday in a loose purple dress and leg warmers and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the attention. She crossed her legs demurely as she played guitar, her porcelain face framed by long dark tresses, her crystalline voice soaring over sparse arrangements of percussion and guitar with mild electronic inflections.

In the coat check line after the show, one Israeli expat enthused about Naim's interactive style on stage, explaining how she was bringing an Israeli performance style to American audiences.

"It's going to spread like wildfire," he said. "Just wait."

(c) JTA